Super Bowl Ads Seek Smiles, But Where's the Hype?

By Michele Gershberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Call it the ripple effect, or the nipple effect, but Super Bowl advertisers have eased off the hoopla ahead of the National Football League championship game this year following an indecency scandal last year.

Less than two weeks before the big U.S. game on Feb. 6, few advertisers have trumpeted their plans for U.S. television’s most watched commercial venue — and, at $2.4 million per 30-second spot, the most expensive.

Many were sobered by a viewer outcry after the 2004 Super Bowl, when singer Janet Jackson bared a breast while performing in the halftime show. The incident prompted an indecency crackdown by federal regulators.

“There may be some caution in the air now based on what happened at halftime last year,” Bob Scarpelli, U.S. chief creative officer at the DDB ad agency, told Reuters. “Marketers are being cautious in terms of what they’re going to run and also how it is talked about in the press.”

The backlash engulfed the more off-color commercials during last year’s game, including a flatulent horse in an ad for brewer Anheuser-Busch and a breezy peek up a bagpipe player’s kilt for Sierra Mist soda.

As a result, some advertisers may actually prefer to wait this time and let the commercials do the talking.

“Larger advertisers have been burned in the past by over-hyping what turned out to be rather bad or at least unpopular ads,” said brand expert Mark DiMassimo.

Marketing executives say they are aiming for smiles, not outrage. Several childhood icons will even tout products this year, including Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny in ads for Emerald of California snack nuts.

Novartis AG’s CIBA Vision will debut a Super Bowl spot aimed at women consumers for its newest contact lens. The ad has lens-wearers exchanging flirtatious, but not racy, glances.

“It is very appealing to both men and women, delivered tastefully — and I will underscore that,” said Karen Gough, CIBA Vision’s president of the Americas. “I think it’s safe to say the Super Bowl this year will be a much more appropriate venue for advertisers.”

Marketers may have also hesitated to talk up ads in the weeks after a Dec. 26 tsunami in south Asia that killed more than 200,000 people, eliciting a global outpouring of sympathy and pledges of aid. Advertisers responded with similar caution after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Continued …

In addition, notably absent this year are marketing battles played up by the media in the weeks before the 2004 Super Bowl. These included the launch of rival erectile dysfunction drugs to Pfizer’s Viagra, an internal ad contest at Procter & Gamble and a campaign against illegal music downloading.


But Scarpelli and other ad executives say the appetite for entertainment and surprise remains strong. Super Bowl hype could yet build in the final stretch before the game.

“There’s going to be more of a carefulness not to be insensitive, but I think people really need entertainment and laughter during very tough times,” said David Lubars, chief creative officer at BBDO North America. The agency is preparing in-game spots for clients like Visa and FedEx Corp .

“I think it will be funny,” he said. “Last year there was an unintentional trend. But that doesn’t mean they (advertisers) aren’t going to try and do something provocative or stand out, because it is the biggest stage.”

Omnicom Group’s DDB is working on as many as 10 commercials aimed at the Super Bowl, to be broadcast from Jacksonville, Florida, by the Fox television network.

That would make DDB — bolstered by perennial Super Bowl marketers like Anheuser-Busch and new forays by McDonald’s, AmeriQuest and Tabasco — the agency with the largest number of Super Bowl spots, a place often claimed by sister agency BBDO.

One Super Bowl preview comes from General Motors Corp.’s Cadillac division, which already launched 5-second commercial teasers ahead of the big game. The ads playfully feature the accelerating power of its V-Series cars, which can speed from zero to 60 miles per hour in under five seconds.

“There’s a little bit of a smile in them, what we call our intelligent wit,” said Cadillac marketing director Jay Spenchian.